People are not their diseases

The complainant, Kris Farmer, wrote because he was concerned that CBC news writers referred to a man diagnosed with schizophrenia as a schizophrenic. The story involved Vince Li, the man who beheaded a passenger on an intercity bus, and was found not criminally responsible. He has been in a Manitoba treatment facility ever since. Mr. Farmer thought it was preferable, no matter what the condition, to refer to people as a person with a condition. CBC’s own language guide suggests that is also preferable, although it is not an absolute. I think it is the more respectful use of language as well and hope that message is reinforced to all news staff.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to express your concern about a February 24, 2014 article on CBC News online regarding developments in the case of Vince Li, the man found not criminally responsible for beheading a fellow passenger on an intercity bus in 2008. The case was heavily covered at the time, and any developments since then also gain news attention. Mr. Li has been receiving treatment for schizophrenia at the Selkirk Mental Health Centre in Manitoba. The Manitoba Review Board was to consider some changes in the conditions of his incarceration.

You wrote to say that you objected to Mr. Li being referred to as a schizophrenic:

“This language is inappropriate and offensive. You don't call someone suffering from cancer a "canceric" or someone with a flu a "fluic". People suffering from mental illness are not their disease and referring to them in such a manner only serves to perpetuate stigmas and harmful misinformation surrounding mental illness. They are a human being who is suffering from a disease, i.e. Mr. Li who suffers from schizophrenia.”

You followed up in another email when you spotted the same term used in a February 27 story outlining the decision of the Review Board. You asked that CBC News avoid using the term schizophrenic and others like it.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor for digital, Brodie Fenlon, replied to your concerns. He told you that he had checked the February 24 story you referenced, which had been rewritten and updated 50 times in the 19 hours between the time it was first published until the last update. He reported that in none of these iterations was Mr. Li referred to as a schizophrenic. Your second citation was sent after Mr. Fenlon had answered you, and since you had requested a review at that point, he left the response with this office.

Mr. Fenlon also addressed the broader issue that you raised – that by labelling someone with their disease, it perpetuates the stigma and misinformation around mental illness. He stated:

“CBC News does use the word “schizophrenia” in stories to describe a particular illness as well as “schizophrenic”; a word the Oxford English Dictionary says simply means “a person with schizophrenia”. It is used in the same way we would say a person with diabetes is “diabetic” or a person with autism is “autistic”. I don’t believe either is defining or offensive.

However, I do agree with you to the extent that using words to describe illnesses, mental and physical, in a metaphorical, trivial or humorous fashion is not only inaccurate but can be offensive. We are sensitive to the potential for offence here and avoid using the words in that manner.”

He acknowledged that language usage changes over time and committed to continue “to review and evaluate the words we use in light of the way they evolve and alter our usage appropriately.”

REVIEW

CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices has no reference to specific terms. It does have policy on language which lays out some principles. It is entitled “Respect and absence of prejudice” and it states:

Our vocabulary choices are consistent with equal rights.

Our language reflects equality of the sexes and we prefer inclusive forms where they are not prohibitively cumbersome.

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived. We do not mention national or ethnic origin, colour, religious affiliation, physical characteristics or disabilities, mental illness, sexual orientation or age except when important to an understanding of the subject or when a person is the object of a search and such personal characteristics will facilitate identification.

We avoid generalizations, stereotypes and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt. Criminal matters require special care and precision.

When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

There are two references that are pertinent in this discussion; one of them is the need to be aware of how minorities and vulnerable groups are perceived. A great deal has been written and a number of campaigns are underway to try and eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness. Research indicates that stigma is one of the significant barriers to treatment. This is a complex issue and beyond scope here. But it is important to provide some context to understand how language usage evolves.

The policy also states that words should be chosen carefully and “with consideration for changes in the language.” CBC’s own language guide admonishes writers to “emphasize the person,” not the illness or disability, and to use nouns instead of adjectives; i.e. a person with diabetes, rather than a “diabetic” or a person with schizophrenia, rather than a “schizophrenic.” People who are affected by the condition prefer the use of the noun, as you point out, and so long as the meaning is not obscured, it seems reasonable to ask CBC journalists to adapt and adopt this approach.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have been involved, on a volunteer basis through my association with the Canadian Journalism Forum on Violence and Trauma, in preparing a Guide for Media covering mental health and suicide. Funding for this project was provided by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. It, too, strongly recommends using the term a “person with schizophrenia.” The Guide will be published in April, and CBC News is the media sponsor.

As for the specifics of your complaint: Mr. Fenlon is correct in that the earlier story does use the phrase “Li had undiagnosed schizophrenia.” The second piece did refer to him as a schizophrenic.

Given its own policy, and the clear message from people who live with mental illness, I encourage CBC News management to consider changes in language and to ensure staff is aware of the importance of using the most neutral and least offensive language. Accuracy and precision of language is an important news value. This shift in language does not appear to impact that. Since calling people by the disease is offensive to people who have it, as well as some of their advocates, there seems little down side to, as Mr. Fenlon states, look at the evolution of language and adapt usage accordingly.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman